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Children - To Fight Or Not To Fight

( Originally Published 1916 )



THE principal of a large city school tells me that he finds among the parents of his pupils just two attitudes towards children's fighting. Either they encourage the fighting instinct without regard to circumstances, or they lay down the rule that the boys must never fight. One attitude is just as arbitrary as the other, and neither fits all cases. Some boys need to be encouraged to stand up to show the stuff they are made of; and others need just as much to be discouraged in their belligerent activities. Each individual has to be judged by himself. And each boy has to learn to judge each fighting opportunity by itself.

Little Harold came home crying bitterly and rather disheveled. There was every evidence of his having gone through a deranging as well as a distressing experience.

What's the matter, Harold? " his mother asked.

" A boy hit me," he sobbed out.

" What did you do? " asked the father.

" I didn't do anything," was Harold's answer.

" Well, next time you hit him first," counseled the father and the incident was considered closed, for there was no serious damage as a result of the beating.

A few days later Harold came home triumphant. He had hit the other boy on sight, and accounts were squared.

Many parents will be shocked by the advice given by Harold's father. That sort of thing leads to quarreling and contentiousness among children; and it develops into bickering and rowdyism when the boys grow up. But however much men may desire an era of peace, we must recognize that boys' fights cannot be dismissed with a formula.

The trouble is really with our own point of view. Most of us assume that we are obliged to choose between having children become bullies or aggressive trouble-makers, and having them become molly-coddles.

If a boy is taught that it is wicked to fight, and if he is inclined to comply with the wishes of his parents or teachers, he may go so far as to stand still while he is being battered up by one of the " tougher " boys in the neighborhood. No self-respecting boy likes to do that; yet many are forced to do just that by the pressure of the home.

On the other hand, the normal boy does not need to be encouraged to fight. He will find plenty of occasions and plenty of temptations to engage in physical combat. What he needs is to be taught what is worth fighting for and what isn't.

Fighting has its value as an exercise, for developing control of the muscles, especially during moments of excitement. But this is not worth having at the risk of becoming a bully. Every boy should take pride in the ability to defend himself against attack; and with many boys this ability no doubt needs to be cultivated by means of lessons in wrestling, boxing, etc. But that is very different from cultivating pride in the ability to " lick" other boys for no particular reason. It is the latter sort of thing that is in danger of degenerating into a cowardly, swaggering, overbearing attitude towards the weaker ones. In learning to defend him-self, a boy should also learn that physical force is not a just basis for making his way in the world.

Two boys were playing at the home of one of them when the latter was sent on an errand, and his friend went with him. On the street they met a " gang " of boys spoiling for a fight. One of the two had been taught to fight whenever he was attacked, and no questions asked. The other had been taught to defend him-self, but to avoid unnecessary fighting. The latter sized up the situation at a glance. It was impossible for the two boys to stand up against the gang, and he had no pride that required him to, undertake an impossible task. He was prepared to fight one at a time ; but he had that better part of valor which suggested a discreet retreat, with an appeal to the police or some adult. We should guard against cultivating that false sense of " honor " which will lead a boy to do foolhardy things in upholding a perverted ideal. There is no honor or glory in getting smashed by little brutes whose instincts have not been properly trained.

In contrast with the boy who knows when to fight and when not to, is the case of one who would not fight under any circumstances. This boy was the delight of a dozen tormentors who would chase him after school until he took refuge in some store, from which he would telephone home to his mother to come and fetch him !

The moral effect of one's attitude towards fighting is even more important than the physical effect. While aggressive combativeness is to be discouraged, we should try to retain enough of the fighting instinct in each child to make sure that the young people do not grow up with a soft indifference to injustice. The late William T. Stead used to say that he was so anxious to have peace that he was willing to fight for it. That is a distinctly sane attitude for young people to acquire.



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